God must love Groundhog Day — he has determined protect it from sequels… so far. (Let’s not count 2019’s amusing Super Bowl commercial).

That premise is so perfect that is has crossed the borders of mere pop-culture lingo to become a permanent part of the English language. In fact, I admire the premise more than the movie itself. (The ‘rom‘ in that rom-com lacks any discernible spark — a significant flaw, in my opinion.) The power of that idea is evident in how frequently it is referenced despite the movie’s weaknesses and its underwhelming climax. I don’t even have to tell you what it’s about — odds are you know already.

Two remarkable strengths of the film explain its status as a classic:

  • The perfect casting of Bill Murray as the exasperated Phil Connors (I’d go even farther and say the casting of Murray and Stephen Tobolowsky — their confrontations are the iconic moments most people recall first from the film); and, most importantly,
  • the genius of its central time-loop metaphor.
Bill Murray and Stephen Tobolowsky — Groundhog Day‘s most iconic couple.

Phil’s confinement in purgatorial Punxsutawney portrays a particular paradox: One of the greatest causes of human suffering is also the mechanism by which we find our greatest joys. We are not only creatures of habit, but we are born into predetermined cycles. We are liturgical creatures. We are bound to certain rhythms of biology and cosmology; we live in a certain sameness. But we make meaning by what we do within those structures. Just as Lars Von Trier’s revelatory documentary about creativity The Five Obstructions demonstrates, the ways in which human beings respond to obstacles and challenges reveal both their capacity for failure and their potential for genius. Our inclinations toward creativity and innovation are largely driven by the desire for surprise — an interruption of the mundane, a disruption of the familiar.

More importantly, we rely upon repetition for a way to distinguish between the bad, the good, and the best. We learn from our mistakes — or, at least we try to. Groundhog Day‘s Phil, played so perfectly by Bill Murray, represents anyone who has recognized a pattern, exploited it, suffered consequences or (better) an awakening of a conscience, and then sought to walk a more rewarding road.

But while Harold Ramis’s philosophically potent comedy has been spared the diluting influence of sequels so far, it hasn’t been spared the inevitable copycats or (as I’m sure they’d prefer to be known) homages. As I scan reviews of the latest — a Hulu Original film called Palm Springs — it is apparently a requirement that I remind you of several, so here we go: Edge of Tomorrow found a way, turning it into an exhilarating sci-fi thriller with Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. It’s worth seeking out, even though you can find it now by its silly video-release title Live.Die.Repeat. The TV series Russian Doll went for a sprawling, complicated, hard-R-rated treatment, giving us at least one trip through the loop (sometimes several) per episode. You may recall the horror version called Happy Death Day, or the rom-com 50 First Dates.

While this list includes some memorable innovations, the over-reliance of American filmmakers on doing what has been done before strikes me as creative laziness. The derivative nature of so much mainstream entertainment causes me to flinch when I recognize a formula as easily as I do watching the trailer for Palm Springs. Once again, an exasperated protagonist gets caught in a single-day time loop, panics, tries to get out, can’t, realizes the possibilities behaves very badly, gets bored and sad, and then starts trying to do the right thing.

So it took a sneaker wave of sudden positive buzz to get me to revive my Hulu account and surf the repetitive waves of Palm Springs.

In this variation from director Max Barbakow and co-writer Andy Siara, Nyles (Andy Samberg), a troublemaker with a devil-may-care grin, is living it up in loop-land as long as he can stay a step ahead of the sadistic and vengeful Roy (J. K. Simmons) who he accidentally led into the loop alongside him. As he hangs out at a wedding that he’s suffered through a thousand times, he becomes entangled with Sarah (Crisin Milioti), the cynical sister-of-the-bride, and soon she’s following him into the madness.

Andy Samberg’s Nyles wakes up and thinks, “Oh, no. Am I in a Groundhog Day knockoff?”

By throwing Sarah and Nyles together into ongoing will-they-or-won’t-they scenarios — Will they or won’t they fall in love? Will they or won’t they have sex? Will they or won’t they wreck the wedding by exposing nasty secrets? Will they or won’t they escape the loop? — we get a timely a clever, timely comedy about learning to make the most of a routine, learning to live with one another, learning to become our best selves, etc.

Many critics are noting how right this movie feels right now, during a season in which audiences are isolated and trying to survive long-term confinement with their loved ones, their roommates, and themselves. And sure, that’s a reasonable observation.

Many more have noted the remarkable chemistry of Samberg and Milioti, which I believed in more than I ever believed in the matchmaking of Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell in Groundhog Day. (I felt more of a connection between Murray and the groundhog than Murray and MacDowell.)

But I’m more concerned with whether or not Palm Springs, with its mix of cringe-worthy crassness, intermittently interesting shenanigans, and endearing lead performances, actually leads us anywhere meaningful. It isn’t hard to lead characters to lessons when they start as low as these two do. (And for a movie about characters who need to grow up, its brand of comedy is painfully juvenile. Take, for example, a scene near the beginning in which Nyles’s girlfriend shouts “Shit!” repeatedly while he’s trying to masturbate. This is how the movie shows us that Nyles needs to change his life. Okay, then.)

Samberg and Milioti would be a perfect pairing in a stronger movie.Comedies like this feel longer than they really are when they flail about looking for some kind of profundity — especially when they settle on Longsuffering Romantic Partnership as the only route to a meaningful life. These two appallingly irresponsible characters, lost in a community of similarly shallow human beings, have a lot to learn. And this movie wears itself out trying to figure out what some of those things might be. It tries to brush aside Groundhog Day‘s “Become a Kind and Loving Person” lesson as trite, but then it can’t make up its mind between the triteness of “Falling in Love Makes the World Turn” or the slightly more mature “Sticking Together For Better or Worse is the Secret of True Love.” In short, it is fumbling its way toward the ideal of marriage as if it’s discovering a new idea altogether.

It is also bizarrely nonchalant about its characters’ misdeeds — from slight recreational indiscretions to torture to murder to long-term sex crimes. (Ha ha! Nyles exploited his time-loop advantage to sleep with countless women — some repeatedly — without revealing that he was manipulating them! What a funny guy! Surely all we need here is for him to find the right woman and all these Whoopsies will be forgiven.)

“The pain is real.” That’s one of the movie’s insights — but it’s more concerned with its protagonists’ pain than the pain they’re causing others.

What kept me watching to the end of Palm Springs, besides the delight of discovering Milioti’s comic agility, was the hope that Barbakow and Siara would innovate an ending that surprised me either with its cleverness or its wisdom. That didn’t happen. The conclusion feels more like exhaustion.

Instead, I found myself wanting to revisit another film in which two troubled young people follow a cyclical pattern of meeting and falling in love until they learn what love is really about: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, from the minds of director Michel Gondry and writer Charlie Kaufman. Now there’s a romantic comedy that explores its sci-fi premise in memorably meaningful ways.

Or, even better — there’s always Jarmusch’s Paterson, which avoids the time-loop concept but frames its scenes effectively with Adam Driver waking up each morning, checking his timepiece, and then using his day’s mundane routines as a scaffold for literary creativity. Here’s a film that highlights our common daily template and, rather than putting the spotlighted couple through the humiliation of so much sophomoric behavior, allows us to learn from their example of improvisation, optimism, enthusiasm, and true love. Why settle for mediocre variations that seem eager to revel in sensational mistakes when you could instead watch something beautiful that reveals the wonder and glory possible within a routine, and how mindfulness can transform sameness into something sacred?